Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2002
Sufism, the mystical side of Islam, is the inspiration of a musical style that emphasizes repetition and a trance-like intensity approaching ecstasy. Its most prominent style is qawwali, which developed in India and Pakistan and whose most famous practitioner was the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Sufi music comes in as many forms as the blues do, each one distinct in its peculiar adherence to devotional poetry or musical structure. Dhafer Youssef, who was raised in Tunisia but now lives in Vienna, has done more than any other musician to bring Sufism into the 21st century. Youssef started chanting when he was 5 and shortly thereafter became a master of the oud -- the Arabic instrument that is the basis for the lute and the guitar. He has absorbed every kind of music he's ever heard, but mostly jazz and funk, which makes sense since Sufi music is by nature both improvisational and rhythmically irresistible.
Youssef worked with a quartet on his groundbreaking 1999 album "Malak," but on his new release, "Electric Sufi," he expands the personnel pool with a collection of international musicians, including Deepak Ram on bansuri (an Indian flute), Living Colour's Doug Wimbish on bass, drummers Mino Cinelu and Will Calhoun, and ambient electronics artist Rodericke Packe.
When devotional music is given the electronic treatment, what you mostly get is the real thing overlaid with effects (e.g., Bhagavan Das' "Now," the farewell album from The Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label). But "Electric Sufi" runs an impressive gauntlet of styles, from the pure Mingus-like jazz of "Mandakini" (highlighted by Markus Stockhausen's keening trumpet) to the haunting, flamenco-like oud solo "Yabay" to the soaring title cut featuring an upper-register chant by Youssef that seems to suck the other musicians along in its wake. Purists might complain that Youssef's music is too formal and more meditative than hypnotic, but they can't deny the intensity, which is mainly in the vocals and which really does sound like something only God could comprehend.